Monday, September 24, 2012

Leisurely Birding in the Meadows and Riparian Corridors of Briones Park

With a car on hand, and a couple of hours to spare, we decide to head to a place I call Brionesland, about 30 minutes away down winding Wildcat Canyon Road in the Berkeley Hills, and then five more winding miles up Bear Creek Road. (Read all about it in a post from 2007 @

At Briones, you can always be assured of seeing deer, coyote, the occasional bobcat, and once, the only mountain lion I have ever seen in the wild. (Read all about it!) Also, birds of all kind abound in the thistly meadows and riparian corridors, with their lush understory and sheltering canopy of many varieties of trees. Raptors and vultures ply the cerulean skies.

Bear Creek Loop is an easy trail that takes us through shaded forest of curveous bay, stout madrone and green acorn bearing oak trees. Occasional openings afford excellent bird habitat to witness the comings and goings, hoots and calls, of sparrows, warblers, vireos, chickadees, hawks and turkeys. Lots of poison oak in through here, too, fading to crimson and adding an autumal quality to things. Bear Creek itself, the major artery which contributes to the impoundment of Briones Reservor, is not even a trickle at this rainless time of year, yet a patch here and there of water remains - a life-sustaining gift, these important drinking holes for thirsty residents and passers-by.

After a leisurely mile of hiking, with some pushing uphill, we come to the tinderbox dry meadows of Homestead Valley. This area, where Seaborg Trail splits off from Crescent Ridge Trail, is open range. Tons of yellow starthistle grows in these parts - the bane of park ecologists - but the pernicious non-native weed also provides a highly nutritious food source to sustain large populations of several different species of birds. During a  half-hour observation period, I reel in dozens of Western Bluebirds flitting about and feeding, as well as Song Sparrows and Lincoln's Sparrows, Purple Finches, immature female Yellow Warblers, and a creme de la creme sighting of a resplendent breeding female taking up perch on a dead thistle two inches away from a breathtaking specimen of Sialia mexicana spotting up on the same weed. The contrast of a bright yellow, 4-inch Warbler matched against the indigo-orange vestment of the 7-inch sleeker bluebird is remarkable for its brilliance of color on display as well as unlikely juxtaposition of two disparate birds. Too bad I'm not equipped for some professional up close photography. Oh, well, this one's a keeper in my forever imagination.

Up a steep hill we climb, surprised at the sun's heat, now fully exposed on the slope at a  hot 4 pm, with a patch of shade every so often from a lone tree, until we finally make the crest, where we sit down under a copse of oak trees and take in the view. The Briones hills are, par excellence, stunning in their voluptuous unendingness. Brionesland is truly an amazing wild natural area, considering that on all sides the park is surrounded by industry, residential sprawl, and highways. It's large and deep enough to make you forget every last bit of it. Thank Heavens, for these preserved 6,000 acres of bounty and beauty!

Retracing our steps to the staging area, we dilly-dally for another twenty minutes in the expansive meadow, hoping to spot a tanager or bunting, but no such luck. A couple of cluckety old Wild Toms emerge from nearby underbrush and scurry across for shelter on the other side. A hawk swoops low. Many bluebirds, warblers, and an occasional Black Phoebe. It's hard to pull away from the show, but the sun is getting low, and it's time to go.

At the car, I find excuses to delay getting in and driving away. Someone once said, near the parking areas is where you'll find all the birds. I hear two or three calls I cannot identify. I trace one particularly pretty melody toward the expanse of hills, but it quiets at my approach - the silence is golden in the dying light. Looking about, I lock eyes with a bobcat hiding in tall brown grass, looking down on the parking area. He's skittish at every sound, but sits there patiently for several minutes, letting me observe him unabashedly, before scampering off at the unnerving blare of a baby crying.

And so concludes our beautiful outing in Brionesland, where you can always count on seeing animals in their natural habitats, especially at those right times of day. At Briones, as I write in my post, I’ve seen bobcats. . .raggedy-ass coyotes, a grey fox. I witnessed the noble spectacle of a nine-point antlered buck leading a family of four across a hillside, and once espied a doe and her newly born fawn learning how to walk in a misty morning meadow.  Commonplace sightings of birds include turkey vultures, various hawk species, quail, black birds; I’ve seen kingfisher, golden eagle, and once, a Great Horned Owl; along with a cornucopia of waterfowl and shorebirds -- ducks, egrets, herons, terns, cormorants. I’ve seen baby rattlesnakes curled up like little turds on the trail, and more than one very large Mother Western Diamondback sunning on a rock, and first time ever - California Kingsnake! Newts, frogs, skunk, raccoon, Western pond turtles, and the truly patient and lucky can hope to see the California Tiger Salamander and the Alameda Striped Racer. (I’ve encountered neither.)

Brionesland is one of the richest biotas in the entire Bay Area. For bird lovers, it's a treasuretrove of avian activity. In-the-know birders can espy at various times of the year Osprey, Bald Eagle (I kid you not!), Chipping Sparrow, Lazuli Bunting, Purple Martin, Lawrence Goldfinch, Northern Shrike, Acorn Woodpeckers, and many other common oak-bay bird species too numerous to mention. It can't get much better (is what the birds are thinking). . .

Bird shots from Wiki Commons - thank you!


  1. sweet ramble on the lovely "las rambles" of Briones, more trips to Briones! Soon! and often!

  2. Sounds like a truly idyllic day! Makes me want to go there...

  3. Sounds idyllic, and a hike I can manage. Gotta check it out!

  4. Tom, love the post. It truly does make me want to take the hike. Always enjoy what you write.

  5. Nice one Taaam! Can't wait to get out there again.

  6. Nice one Taaam! Can't wait to get out there again (with the Tiger).

  7. Ahhh, this is so nostalgic to read! Remembering many a fun ride with you out there. What a gem! -Nicole F